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Death before DNF

by @garyfallsover
Tuesday 17th June 2014

Run247 columnist Gary Dalton discusses when to quit and suggests that it can be ok to DNF for many reasons

I once DNF’d an invitation only race because I was a bit bored. I DNF’d a winter race because I’d forgotten the start time of the rugby and I needed to get home to see the kick off. You see I have a slightly different view of DNF’ing than quite a few of the ultra-runners I know and I think that the ‘death before DNF’ mentality that a lot of people have needs to be challenged a little.

Like most of you I suspect I remember every DNF I’ve recorded, whether it was a big target race or the local Park Run. And each of them has taught me something different about what it was that brought me to that point and how, if it were possible, I could change the result. And you know what? If I could I probably wouldn’t have changed anything at all.

You see apart from the Transylvania 100K I wrote about in my last column I’ve been perfectly happy with each of my DNF’s. That’s not to say I didn’t walk away at the time wondering if I’d done the right thing but with time I know in each case I made the right decision for me. Whether that decision was to hide behind a wall as my sixth form class went haring off into the distance on our schools bi monthly  cross country suffer fest or to stop running because I just remembered there was something decent on TV I’d wanted to watch.

This mentality that some people have, that’s perpetuated on social media from the elites down to the everyday plodders that you have to leave everything out on the course every time is ridiculous to me. That you must push your way through the pain and injury barrier to complete the course at every race and potentially destroy months of training to get a cheap tech t-shirt and a medal you’ll never look at baffles me.

Ultra running is tough. It should be tough, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact it should be fun too, it should be something to enjoy, whether that enjoyment is taken from the challenge itself or from the pleasure of running through some of the most beautiful countryside the world has to offer.

That’s not to say there isn’t pleasure and achievement to be had from toughing things out when things aren’t going your way. There’s something incredibly rewarding about battling through when you feel rough, knowing that you can take another step despite wanting to just lie down on the ground and wait for the nice man to take you home. But this is the ultra-scene and that nice man is highly likely to call you a princess and to get the feck out of his aid station.

So how do we recognise when to put on our  big boy pants and man up and  when to live to plod another day? Well for me it’s by being honest with myself before I even get to the start line about what the race means to me. If it’s the culmination of months of training and dedication then I’m far more likely to push myself that little bit further when the going gets tough. Like men all races are not created equal and some races are more equal than others. Last September I had the good luck to toe the line at the UTMB in Chamonix, for those who know the race it’s generally accepted as one of the biggest ultra-races in the European calendar. It attracts some of the greatest runner our sport knows and several hundred numpties like me that just want to finish the course before the 46 hour cut off. Each year hundreds don’t make it and bear in mind these are runners who have already completed at least two tough ultras just to qualify as entrants.

That race was my A race for the year, it was one I had spent the previous year collecting points for and I desperately wanted to be able to wear the coveted finishers gilet walking around Chamonix that Sunday. Well that was the plan until I dislocated my knee cap about half way around and was reduced to a walk for the rest of the race. But it never occurred to me to quit for several reasons. Firstly I took professional advice, the French doctor who put the knee back said essentially as long as it didn’t dislocate again the damage was done. Secondly I could manage the pain. And most importantly the race meant so much to me I couldn’t bear to drop as long as I could physically keep moving. If I’d been timed out then so be it but I wasn’t going to quit for anything. Well I didn’t run a step from where the fall happened but I did finish and to this date the gilet is one of my favourite possessions.

This September I get a chance to test my resolve again when I take on the 330km 27000 metres of Italian Alps that is the Tor des Geants. And I’ve already promised myself that I’d ask myself the question that Scott Jurek asks himself whenever he feels like dropping. Can I take one more step. If the answer is yes there’s not a hope in hell I’m taking myself off that course by choice.

So I guess what I’m trying to get across is this. Take your ego out of the decision making process. I don’t run ultras so I can impress people so why should I/you care if people know you didn’t finish a race? Who are you running for? Is it because you’re proud to tell people you’ve finished or is it because you’re ashamed to tell them you didn’t? You never know, there might just be something on telly you’re missing.


About The Author

Gary Dalton

Gary Dalton is a rugby loving, crime fighting, white Irish Muslim ultra runner. Despite all this he's not a complete eejit. 

Gary is originally from the west of Ireland and can't actually remember when he moved to London - he blames a heavy diet of being tackled by prop forwards and potatoes for the memory loss. He hates going out for runs, canals and borderline hypothermia and loves ice cream and going out for runs. 


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